The team in charge of tracking Facebook’s (FB) growth works on the second floor of Building 17. Most days, the offices are like anywhere else at Facebook: whiteboards, toys on desks, shorts and flip-flops, pretty low-key. Around noon on Sept. 14, the second floor was packed. In one of the common areas, a giant screen showed the number of active Facebook users worldwide. About 100 people, including Mark Zuckerberg and his top lieutenants, watched the numbers run up by about a thousand users per minute: 999,980,000 … 999,990,000 … 1,000,000,000. The counter paused for a moment when it rounded 10 digits, as if to emphasize the point: 1 billion users.
“I don’t even know if we knew who the billionth person was,” Zuckerberg says about two weeks later. He’s sitting outside at the company’s sprawling Menlo Park (Calif.) campus, resting his arms on a tiny café table. In his usual rapid-fire delivery, Facebook’s 28-year-old chief executive officer explains that his aversion to overt jubilance goes back to the earliest days of his company, when it was still a dorm room operation at Harvard. “We have this ethos where we want to be a culture of builders, right? We don’t want to overly celebrate any particular milestone,” he says. He knew even in college that a company would soon unite a huge portion of humanity via a single social service, he just wasn’t sure it would be his. “We were just these college students, and who were we to build this big thing?” he says. “Clearly, there were other companies used to building software at scale, and one of them would do it.”
Facebook got there first for a lot of reasons, many of them familiar to anyone who saw the movie The Social Network: Zuckerberg’s ambition, knack for addictive widgets, and what some would call supreme ruthlessness. The more impressive reasons, though, have to do with the culture he established, which is expressed in the motivational posters around the company’s offices: “Move Fast and Break Things.”
Facebook absorbed Silicon Valley’s hacker ethos and amplified it. Tech companies normally do controlled beta versions of their technologies; Facebook doesn’t beta anything. It runs as an unending series of quick, on-the-fly tests with actual customers. Engineers race to put up new features, see if they work, and make tweaks to fix them if they don’t. Even trainees who haven’t finished their six-week indoctrination program are asked to work on the live site. The live site, by the way, runs on custom-designed hardware and software housed in Facebook’s superefficient, and experimental, data centers. Every now and again the whole site crashes, but Zuckerberg can live with that. “The faster we learn, the better we’re going to get to the model of where we should be,” he says.